Need to build a culture of food safety across the board

Pawan Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI

Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 was enacted on August 23, 2006. It completed a decade. FSSAI recently organised a programme in Delhi to commemorate the decade of the Act. FSSAI has launched various new initiatives to spread the food safety culture involving all groups of stakeholders. Pawan Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI, talks to NuFFooDS Spectrum about what FSSAI did for the implementation of FSSA 2006 and what are its plans for the next decade.

What are the main key changes that are different from the earlier Acts?

I think, in one stroke, the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 brought about a paradigm shift in the way we look at food safety regulations. This Act is an integrated food law. When this Act was enacted pre-existing nine Acts and several orders were re-pealed. But that is not enough to say. I feel it did not just unify the previous Acts into a single Act, but it marked a change in the basic thinking about the process of implementing food safety – from detecting adulteration and punishing the culprit, to promoting self-regulation and setting science based standards for the same. On one hand it stresses on self-regulation and precaution than detection and punitive action and on the other setting standards and risk assessment is the base of the Act. Modern processing and new technologies emerging in the food processing sec-tor required a new law to match with them and the FSS Act fulfills that need.

How do you see the industry response to the Act and how was it earlier?

Whenever any law is introduced there are always doubts in the minds of stakeholders. How this Act will affect my business, what will I have to do to cope with the new rules, will it increase my cost and other problems, will the legal hassles increase etc. The industry response in this initial phase is always very reserved and slow. There are doubts, uncertainties, non-clarity on the other side also. A process and clarity slowly evolves and then the industry response changes. Though I was not here to witness it in the initial phase, I think the food processing sector passed through the same process. Many interpretations were open for different rules and regulations leading to litigations. But lot of work was done during this period by FSSAI creating the solid foundation.

The industry response also changed. Initial apprehensions are over now. The industry is very positive and the industry and the regulator are moving ahead together, I feel. Still, there are some issues and difference of opinions. They will continue to re-main. But that does not mean that we are at two different sides turning away faces from each other. There is a mechanism to resolve issues. The FSSAI has brought in complete transparency. So, I am sure even the industry response must be changing. When FSSAI organised a function to commemorate the decade of the FSS Act, industry representatives were present in large number, I believe, indicating the positive mood of the industry. Maggi noodles episode is now a past. Lessons have been learnt on both sides and this is paving way for atmosphere of mutual trust between the FSSAI and all its stakeholders.


What are your expectations from the industry?

There are two types of expectations from the industry. One is related to the aspects related to regulations, setting standards etc. and the second is related to participation in FSSAI’s programmes for spreading food safety culture. FBOs need to be patient and they should have trust in the regulator. The regulator is not working against the interests of businesses. Regulator exists because of the businesses, otherwise there is no need for a regulator. FBOs should understand that any regulation or standard we create is always subject to change. It evolves. They should also appreciate that everything that they may say or feel may not be feasible to implement. As consumer interest is involved, and if there are issues of safety as a regulator it is my duty to give priority to that.

FSSAI has recently launched 10@10 campaign to reach out to the every stakeholder. One initiative of the programme is for corporates. We have created ten options for the corporates to participate in the programme. FSSAI expects the businesses to get engaged in these initiatives.

How is the progress of implementation of the Act?

In the initial 5, 6 years since its inception, FSSAI focused on creating robust regulatory environment in terms of rules, standards and regulations. That work has been completed 85%. Another 10% work will be completed in six months. Remaining 5% will continue as standards are not static. Standards continue to evolve, change, new challenges will come and we have to ensure that standards and regulations are adjusted to the changing environment.

In the implementation there are three key players. Implementation of regulations largely rests with state governments and state enforcement machinery. Second key player is food businesses. We do hope that once regulatory environment is clear food businesses will come forward to implement it. Third key players are citizens or consumers. As consumers they have a right to safe and hygienic food and they need to understand what their rights are. In the order of importance the third one is most important, food businesses come next and as a last recourse, I would say, we should look at enforcement machinery.

Are there any weak areas in the legislation that need to be strengthened?

Even though pre-existing laws, rules and orders are unified in one integrated law there are several areas that are still out of the purview of the Act. For instance, plant and animal quarantine, safety of water supplied by civic authorities are some of such areas which needs to be covered. Further, legacy of institutional arrangements of standards for foods like BIS, Agmark continue to exist and create confusion in public mind. Perhaps, there is need for making distinction between unsafe and non-standard food, particularly from the point of penal provisions. And finally, there is need for greater clarity in roles of Central and state governments and local bodies regarding their responsibilities for ensuring compliance.

What needs to be done more in future?

There is need to build a culture of food safety across the board that should ideally include food con-sumed at homes, schools, workplaces and safety of food when eating outside in restaurants, dhabas and roadside stalls, ensuring compliance to food safety norms by big as well as small food businesses, domestic as well as multi-national companies, organised and unorganised sectors. It is also necessary to make food testing system more robust and to do the capacity building of food testing staff.

What challenges are still there you feel in the effective implementation?

The key challenge is the general negative perception about safety of foods one gets even though it may not be entirely true. This would require that we build robust data system based on large scale setting of safety parameters, conduct total diet study and develop risk based approach to standards setting and take care of general doubts about concerns on Food Safety. The second challenge is changing the mindsets of enforcement machinery particularly at state level and align it to new realities and new expectations under the new law thereby bringing ethics and transparency in compliance of the law.

How do you visualise the next decade from the point of view of the act as well as implementation?

With citizens becoming more conscious of health and wellness, food safety and nutrition would come to center stage. The food authority, with support of all it stake holders, will be able to build an environment of trust and confidence amongst the people about the safety of food that we get. All this would be possible with alignment of efforts of all. 

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